KPBS AIRDATE: APRIL 22, 1998
If linguistic acrobatics is your idea of a good workout, Tom Stoppard will really make you sweat. His plays are not mindless entertainment; far from it. But sometimes they smack of mental masturbatory exercises, like the self-congratulatory and solipsistic “The Real Thing.”
But in his 1993 “Arcadia,” he may actually have achieved ‘the real thing’ — a play about Big Ideas, about math and science and history and gardens and language, love and sex and order and chaos.
The title refers to a mythical, utopian paradise, where anything is possible. Stoppard has set his intricate, complex piece in Sidley Park, a 500-acre country estate in Derbyshire, England. The scenes alternate between 1809 and the present, and in the final moments, the two centuries coexist.
In the past, we meet the young prodigy Thomasina, and her tutor, Septimus. In her mathematics notebook doodles, she stumbles upon chaos theory and fractals, 150 years before they are formally identified and described. In the modern day, two competitive academics, literary sleuths, are trying to solve some of the mysteries of Sidley Park — its gardens, its hermit, its pre-pubescent genius, its grouse, its links to Lord Byron, and its profusion of sexual liaisons. This provides Stoppard with a backdrop for a cerebral and visceral contrast of Romanticism and Classicism, art vs. science, intuition vs. deduction, and Chaos Theory vs. Newtonian physics.
In one particularly radiant revelation, the rationalist Thomasina interrupts her Latin lesson to berate the love-besotted Cleopatra and weep over the loss of the great library at Alexandria. But Septimus consoles her with an explanation that encapsulates Fractal mathematics: “Nothing is lost to us,” he says. “We shed as we pick up… and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind…. The missing plays of Sophocles will turn up piece by piece, or be written again in another language. Mathematical discoveries glimpsed and lost to view will have their time again.” And so it is in the play… and even in life. Ironically, only a few weeks after the premiere of “Arcadia,” a proof was found for Fermat’s Last Theorem, which is mentioned in the play as insoluble since the 17th century. The mind boggles. And that’s sort of the intent — which is certainly successfully achieved.
There is wit and humor here, and a plethora of sometimes infuriating characters and situations, not to mention a number of unresolved issues and unanswered questions. But Chaos Theory shapes the play, which only underscores the notion that ours is a world of contradiction and paradox. Some aspects of the past are irretrievable. But the past also recurs in the present — at unexpected moments and in unexpected ways. “When we have found all the mysteries and lost all the meaning, we will be alone on an empty shore,” says Septimus. And Thomasina adds, “Then we will dance.” And that’s the last, time-spanning, romantic image we’re left with: two couples, waltzing against time.
It’s a lovely production at South Coast Rep — beautifully designed (James Youmans) and lit (Tom Ruzika), with a century-bending mix of background music by San Diegan Michael Roth. The direction (by David Emmes) and the performances are as potent as the material. Particularly natural and credible are Linda Gehringer as the researcher and Benjamin Livingston as the modern-day descendant of the Sidley Park owners. Rona Benson is a bit shrill, though believably intelligent, as Thomasina; Matt Keeslar is a striking Septimus, but there could be a bit more electricity between them.
As is so often the case with Stoppard, the piece is mentally titillating, but emotionally unsatisfying. With all the lust and love and sex discussed and implied, there’s a surprising dearth of passion onstage. The structural, conceptual and linguistic pyrotechnics are dazzling, but they discharge more light than heat. And yet, you can’t help but feel intellectually fired up by this intense and showy flash of brilliance.
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1998 Patté Productions Inc.